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Shiite martyr may have been accidental victim of an errant bullet

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Thousands of demonstrators marched through southern Beirut on Tuesday, celebrating the life and death of Ahmed Mahmoud, whom they called a Shiite Muslim martyr.

They said that Mahmoud was killed by gunmen loyal to Lebanon's Sunni-led government, but the circumstances of his death Sunday night during a street fight between Sunnis and Shiites are far from clear. Residents in the area where Mahmoud was killed said that it could easily have been a fellow Shiite who killed him.

The fact that a death so confusing could spark such passion, with men beating their chests and crying, "A martyr is loved above all by God," underscored how close this fragile, flammable country is to renewed civil war.

The marchers called for retaliation against Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, a Sunni Muslim whose U.S.-backed government has been under siege since Friday by massive protests orchestrated by the nation's main Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal.

During the funeral procession, Mahmoud's coffin was carried slowly down the street, and a line of young musicians from a Shiite militia's youth program played a funeral dirge. Large groups of Shiites gathered in front of the clothing stores and fruit stands along the way, some weeping, some calling out loud for God's mercy.

Khalil Rizk, a Hezbollah cleric, said there was no question about what happened to Mahmoud: "The government's militia killed him."

On Monday morning, Shiite political groups had said that Mahmoud was among a group of Shiites who were on their way home from demonstrations when they were attacked in the Sunni neighborhood of Tarik al-Jedida. Local television stations showed Mahmoud's family in a home in the Shiite neighborhood of Shiyah. His extended family is active in the Amal militia, which quickly said that he'd been a member.

"It happened on their way back ... to the (Shiite) southern suburbs," said Ali Hamdan, a senior Amal official.

Neither Mahmoud nor his parents, however, lived in Shiyah or in any other Shiite neighborhood. They lived in Tarik al-Jedida, the Sunni stronghold. And Mahmoud wasn't coming home from a demonstration; he was stepping out of his house when shooting began and was hit by an errant bullet.

Indeed, hours after the shooting, a McClatchy reporter in Tarik al-Jedida saw Sunni residents comforting Mahmoud's mother and brother, who at the time didn't accuse their Sunni neighbors of the crime.

The incident began when Shiites passing through the area and local Sunnis began exchanging political insults that turned to religion. A battle that began with rocks and bottles ended in gunfire.

Whose bullet killed Mahmoud is unknown. The Sunnis on the streets of Tarik al-Jedida were carrying sticks and pipes, not guns, when a McClatchy reporter arrived. One man dug into his jeans pocket to show AK-47 shell casings that he said were from Shiites shooting at the crowd. It was possible, of course, that the Sunnis had stashed their guns after the incident.

A Shiite neighbor said that Mahmoud, a mechanic in his early 20s, had been in his home and had run outside to see who was fighting when he was killed.

"We don't know who shot him," said the neighbor, who would give only his first name, Ahmed. With a sad look on his face, Ahmed said that he and Mahmoud's family had close relationships with their Sunni neighbors.

"We have been in this neighborhood for 70 years; we are like a family," he said.

By Monday, however, sectarian fervor had overwhelmed any questions about how Mahmoud was shot.

Fliers and posters of Mahmoud were spread throughout Beirut. At the demonstration outside Saniora's offices, which Hezbollah has promised to maintain until the government resigns, a spotlight highlighted a picture of his face, high above the crowds.

Hezbollah songs were booming on the speakers, speaking of "a resistance that never fears its enemies." Mahmoud's coffin was brought to the crowd, and carried to the stage.

On Monday night, shops were ransacked and set ablaze, reportedly by Shiites who'd seen Mahmoud's coffin at the demonstration.

At his funeral on Tuesday, men chanted that "the blood of the Shiites is burning."

"May God punish the ones who killed him," they said.

Miriam Musalwani, a young Shiite woman, was in the crowd.

"He was killed by men from Saniora's government," she said. "They killed him because he is against the government."

A group of clerics watched the crowd. A black Mercedes Benz pulled up to carry Shiite leaders to the graveyard.

Most of the people at the funeral procession had never met Mahmoud.

Mohammed Khamis, though, was a Shiite friend from Tarik al-Jedida.

"There was a lot of confusion. He was at his house, and the next thing we knew, he was dead," Khamis said. "I don't know exactly what happened."

When an Amal guard walked up behind Khamis, he changed his tone immediately. "Of course I know who killed him—the militias who support the government," Khamis said.

Mahmoud's body was laid to rest between a tight row of white marble gravestones.

One nearby stone read: "Amal Martyr."

Another was inscribed: "The Martyr of the Islamic Resistance."

A cleric climbed down into Mahmoud's grave to kneel over his body and read from the Quran.

A pack of security guards, family members, cameramen and onlookers shoved for a look at the grave dug in the red-brown dirt.

Someone yelled, "God is great."

Men stripped branches off the nearby trees and threw them into the grave. A series of concrete slabs were handed down to seal the grave. Men took turns shoveling dirt.

The cleric began to recite: "In the name of God, the most merciful." A hush fell over the crowd.

Then, just over the cemetery wall, a loudspeaker sounded: "We call on the people today to protest against the government."

When night came to downtown Beirut, men and women stood with candles lit to honor Mahmoud's death. One speaker after the next spoke of Mahmoud and the blood he'd shed for their cause.

"We want to know who killed this young man," a voice boomed over the loudspeakers. "His blood is still fresh!"

The crowd had found its martyr. But not his killers.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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